Measure for Measure

Known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, Measure for Measure has long divided critics. Angelo’s puritanical ethics twinned with his ruthless pursuit of Isabella speak to the irreconcilable schism at the heart of morality. As does the impossible bind in which Isabella finds herself: should she save her brother, or preserve her own virtue? Even the Duke, the de facto moral centre of the play, is compromised by the end of the drama’s action — he saves Isabella from Angelo’s clutches, only to take her for himself. It is because these tensions are never resolved, but left to linger and swirl on stage like a winter fog, that the play still bewitches the fragmented postmodern mind.


Through the zealous rule of Angelo over the city, the play asks us to consider what happens when the law is enforced in its strictest form. With Claudio harshly sentenced for following the instincts of his lover’s heart, the play renders a troubling scenario in which following the letter of the law creates painful injustice — something modern audiences continue to relate to.


“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where / To lie in cold obstruction and to rot […] And blown with restless violence round about / The pendent world.” These are Claudio’s words as he contemplates his impending doom. Though often performed as a comedy, the play has a tragic edge which asks us to consider the mysteries of death — sharpened by the fact that they are faced by such a young character.


Most male characters believe they can take whatever they desire — an entitlement not limited to the women around them. The play condemns this attitude while also tacitly allowing it (for example in the Duke’s forceful proposal to Isabella). Gender relations may have evolved, as the recent #MeToo movement suggests. Yet the intense debates which encircle the campaign prove that uncertainties remain.


Isabella is a novice nun who (unlike other characters) practises the piety she preaches. Although she desires to stick to the “truth of spirit”, her resolve is repeatedly tested by a licentious society in which devotion is overruled by appetite. Her godly manner may seem remote to 21st century audiences, but her dogged adherence to moral principles is a lesson that applies to all.


Like many other plays of the period, Measure for Measure ends in a spate of marriages. Not all of them seem promising, with Lucio comparing his forced betrothal to a “pressing to death”. As the ancient institution of marriage grapples with the mores of modern society, the tensions of matrimony that the play performs are increasingly legible in today’s world.